From writer to president to writer: Vaclav Havel visits Krakow

In his speech “A Farewell to Politics” on October 19, 2002, during his last official visit to the U.S. as president of the Czech Republic, dissident, poet, playwright and politician Vaclav Havel remarked:”I’ve discovered an astonishing thing: although it might be expected that this [presidential] wealth of experience would have given me more and more self-assurance, confidence and polish, the exact opposite is true.

In that time, I have become a good deal less sure of myself, a good deal more humble. You might not believe this, but every day I suffer more and more from stagefright; every day I am more afraid that I won’t be up to the job, or that I’ll make a hash of it. It’s harder and harder for me to write my speeches, and when I do write them, I am more and more fearful than ever that I will repeat myself over and over again.”It’s a telling quote, as it reflects Havel’s trademark self-effacing irony, and also because it was eminently visible at the September 3rd “Havel at Wawel” press conference at 13:00.

Journalists are a vicious sort of people at the best of times, but on this occasion they were positively bestial. When Havel stands on the Wawel balustrade and 30 flashing cameras lunge in his face, the 71-year-old man looks visibly unnerved and uncomfortable in his suit ? a far cry from the grinning, cigarette-smoking face on the posters. As he sits down with Jerzy Illg from Znak and his Polish translator Andrzej Jagodzinski, the cameras keep clicking and flashing, despite repeated requests for the photographers to return to their seats.

Every time Havel switches positions, the cameras go off again. He fiddles nervously with his glasses-case for much of the interview. Havel likes to speak of himself as living in a fairy-tale, and indeed, it is hard to resist the romance of his biography. Born into a wealthy family, young Vaclav became interested in poetry by about the age of 15.

He befriended film director Milos Forman, visited the poet Jaroslav Seifert, and fell quickly under the spell of the work of Franz Kafka, whose writing was heavily suppressed by the authorities. Havel began working in the theater in the 1960s, writing plays that had much in common with the Theater of the Absurd (e.g. Beckett, Ionesco, Pinter). The breakdown or artificial construction of language was a major preoccupation. And it continues to be so for Havel, as he made evident at the press conference. Havel spoke of the dangers of catch phrases in politics. Once people stop putting together sentences for themselves, they stop thinking as well, he claimed. Later, at the 17:00 meeting, Havel mentioned his distaste for the phrase “national interests,” in that it implied differences of interests between nations, which should all be thinking in the same direction. He had his passport revoked in 1969, the same year the literary magazine he worked for “Tvar” was shut down. Havel began participating in more and more dissident activities and in his book even describes himself as a homo politicus. Havel largely spent the late 70s and early 80s in and out of prison ? a total of over five years. He co-founded the Charter 77 organization for human rights, which continued to be a major concern for Havel during his time as president.

In 1989, he was imprisoned, released, and then elected president of the then-Czechoslovakia. During his subsequent 15-year reign, he remained a remarkably popular politician, both at home and abroad. The mood at the press conference, for the most part, was decidedly kept light. Jerzy Illg recalls how Nobel-prize winner Wislawa Szymborska once sighed, “Why don’t men like Havel have twin brothers!” He bemoans the fact that the Czech Republic had a president savvy enough to invite the Rolling Stones and Lou Reed to visit him, while Poland’s president was enjoying Disco Polo (cheap synthesized dance music popular in Polish villages ? ed.). But Havel is a man who has spent five years in prison, and he is also refreshingly capable of speaking seriously, even at a press conference. He is vehement in his belief that firm principles need to support politics, and states that as soon as politics drifts away from solid principles it becomes a circus or a football match. Not an earth-shattering statement, but one that gives a good indication of how Havel speaks ? in a way that is disarming, precisely because it reminds us of how artificially other politicians speak.

With Havel one is absolutely certain that his views are not those of a speech-writer, and so what one gets is a human being, and quite an intelligent one at that. Havel is even more forthright when questioned about the current politics in Poland. “Poland should ensure that it has a new election as soon as possible,” he states. “And it would be a good idea if the voting were overseen by an international committee.” He then falls silent. Ten minutes later another reporter asks him to clarify this statement, and he merely replies, “It is no shame to have an election overseen. It is the very essence of what democracy is about, as a matter of fact.”

Polish politics became a major topic in the later discussion involving political critic and onetime dissident Adam Michnik, theater director Kazimierz Kutz and Havel. Michnik held up Jaroslaw Kaczynski as the very model of poor international relations, a point on which he expanded at length, and every one of his remarks seemed to end with a tirade against the current politics. Such remarks had a certain inevitability to them; Michnik also spent some time describing his first meeting with Havel at the Polish-Slovak border, drinking vodka and discussing how to overthrow the Soviet government.

This was a generation where politicians somehow developed from bandits, artists and peasants, a model that has already become a seeming impossibility in today’s world. Havel himself stressed that he had never wanted to be leader of anything before he became president.”I always thought,” Havel said in his slow voice, “that when I finished being president I would be free as a bird.” To his own surprise, he found himself continuing to censor himself in public, to represent himself and his thoughts in a way more diplomatic than how he wanted to.

That in spite of this he should still come across as one of the most natural and clear-headed politicians one has ever seen is remarkable. Havel’s latest book, “Briefly, please,” (“Tylko krotko, prosze”) is newly available in Polish translation from Znak publishers. English-language readers have had access to it for some months now.

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